Category Archives: American Studies

Critically Making Games from Historical Cookbooks

By Alessandra Zinicola Lopez

To make something edible is arguably the anticipated end-expectation of the design and use of any food recipe. Making is entwined with cookery, from the writing of its instruction, guided by the experimentation involved in developing a recipe, through the tactile creation process of the consumable result.

As scholars, we can approach the study of recipes from different perspectives. My educational background is in technical communication, but my doctoral work has been done through the University of Central Florida’s innovative digital humanities program, Texts and Technology.

Within this program I typically focus on historical domestic technical communication, the old receipts that instructed Americans for centuries on how to run households. But rather than solely approaching my research from methods historians or technical communicators might default to, I approach my work like a digital humanist, and have found critical making to be useful in exploring my studies.

In this article I aim to introduce the critical making research method to recipes research by showcasing a digital exercise I have completed using it. Through this, I hope to encourage other recipe scholars to experiment with this method.

In Ratto’s 2011 publication of Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life, the author writes about critical making merging concepts of critical thinking and pragmatic physical making together to create a process-focused way of deriving knowledge.

Ratto explains the method includes three stages: a literature review, prototyping, and reconfiguration, discussion, and reflection. The method is performed to bridge gaps between technology and society.

The critical making process can be interactive or collaborative and various digital tools can be used to perform it. In this exercise I used Twine, an open-source hypertext platform that allows for the formation of scholarship through online interactive non-linear narratives. I would describe it as a tool to create a digital choose-your-own-adventure.

Image Credit: Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/poeticalcookbook00moss/page/n8/mode/1up

I worked with Twine to explore a historical cookbook that interested me because of its creative use of poetry to instruct meal preparation. The book is Maria J. Moss’ A Poetical Cook-Book, a community cookbook originally published in 1864 during the American Civil War. An aim of the project was to generate public and scholarly interest in historical recipes through gamification. I thought that perhaps a younger, technologically savvy audience might have their interest in American culinary history piqued through a digitally interactive experience. I used the critical making research process to create a hypertext narrative game based on the cookbook.

The following is an abbreviated example of the show-your-work type of documentation done during the prototyping stage of critical making.

To begin, I consulted Twine’s discussion boards and searched for tutorial videos on using the platform. I wanted to create all the passages and arrange them in the way I felt would make sense to a user. While it was easy to select and place each recipe, it was harder to figure out how to lead up to them, transition between them, and end the journey.

In the next passages, I offered information about the project, and I allowed the recipes to be accessed in the order of what people typically consume during mealtimes, and additionally in any other way they want to access them (i.e., dessert for dinner). After I added all the recipes, I played with how they could link together. It was then that I realized the way to click through them could be a conversation between the user or attendee and the host.

Image Credit: Twine, https://twinery.org/

I eventually ordered the passages and links together as pictured above. I then started to fiddle with color. I used a tutorial to guide me through the tips on how to change the font within the stylesheet. While I was initially successful in finding fonts and colors for the game, I ran into some issues.

I tried to figure out why my colors displayed incorrectly. I had copied and pasted code from a forum discussion response that claimed to be a coding answer. Revisiting it, I realized there was code missing. Once I added it, the issue was solved. This type of refashioning constituted a reconfiguration portion of the project.

Image Credit: Twine, https://twinery.org/

I felt the exercise in gamifying a historical cookbook was successful and well received. Through the process of critical making, I found that it has provided a path to be more creative as a scholar by exemplifying the traditional ways of generating knowledge are not the only ways. Research can be designed in ways that allow for it to be presented in ways that may speak to more people, expanding its reach and impact. Turning historical rhyming recipes into a digital narrative game is just one way to garner more interest from scholars and the public in recipes, history, and literature.

Special thanks to Dr. Anastasia Salter for all the knowledge imparted within their course on Critical Making for Humanist Scholarship.

The published version of the game can be played at https://madeofallwork.itch.io/.

Oppenheimer and the RP

By Joshua Schlachet

It may not surprise you to hear that The Recipes Project is light on nuclear arms. Given the exploratory style and generative levity with which so many of our contributors approach our shared themes of food, magic, art, and medicine, the weightiness of weapons of mass destruction, the inner pathos of their “father,” and recipes for radioactive isotopes are nowhere to be found. (Gravity, after all, was a topic for a different Christopher Nolan film.)

Yet the spirit of experimentation, the enormity of collective endeavor, and the destructive consequences of creation without humanity can all be found throughout our pages past. And a profound trust in the process, in taking a leap of faith that the farfetched—even the impossible—could be achieved with sufficient inquisitiveness and dedication to the procedure, runs through so much of what we do at the RP. What is a recipe if not a leap of faith? To begin with raw, even primordial ingredients and trust in a method to transform them into something perhaps unimaginable (whether a delicious pie or a fission reaction) cuts to the heart of what a recipe is and does.

These too are personified in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which undoubtedly contributed to famed director Christopher Nolan’s choice of Oppehheimer as his first ever foray into the biopic genre. As the principal figure in the Manhattan Project and in the construction of the first atomic bomb, what began as a career of scientific exploration evolved into an existence plagued by the destructive power that his endeavors unlocked. Oppenheimer’s life of contradictions would be forever tied to the terrible weapon he and his team developed and to the wartime state that produced and used it.

Throughout the pages of the RP, our contributors have probed the relationship between war and recipes in a variety of contexts. In some posts, recipes had the potential to win wars, whether by provisioning the troops, encouraging thrift on the homefront, or buying domestic goods. Here are but a few to sample:

Other contributors have taken a creative approach to the study of recipes and weapons, both top secret and otherwise. We need not dig too far back into the archive to find Madison Clyburn’s piece It Roars and Breathes Fire on the making of ‘terrifying’ dragons for waging war and for spectacle. Aileen Das’ Removing Arrowheads in Antiquity and the Middle Ages explores recipes as a means to heal the wounds of war in the ancient world. For a far more lighthearted (though still very much political) take on ‘secret’ weapons of a very different sort, check out Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ The CIA’s “Secret” Weapon: Dorothy Pompeo’s Christmas Fudge Recipe.

Yet to historians of Japan like me, the atomic bomb means something quite different. As I watched Oppenheimer in the theater, I couldn’t help but think of who got left out—of the silenced voices of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is clear that the film agrees with Gary Oldman, playing President Harry Truman, when he tells Oppenheimer that “Hiroshima isn’t about you.” Whether or not we agree with this sentiment, it is worth remembering that some of our contributors have used the lens of recipes and food to center Japanese voices and experiences. Here are two highlights from Nathan Hopson’s series on food culture in wartime Japan:

Finally, as an auteur filmmaker, Nolan is a master of time. To bend and, at times, even overcome it, is a hallmark of his filmic style. While Oppenheimer’s narrative jumped from era to era, traversing decades in seconds, Tillmann Taape’s 2017 RP post ‘Thus It Prevails Against Time’ reminds us that recipes have sought to cheat time (and decay) since at least the sixteenth century. How and why did an early modern maker of medicines prevail over time without the modern tools of nonlinear storytelling or IMAX cameras? Take the time to read and see.

Trusting the Grocer

By Benjamin R. Cohen

A word for the grocer, because before the recipe is the ingredient. To get the ingredient, you either grow it yourself or buy it at a store. Most of us buy it at a store. The grocer is the supplier.

At the supermarket, today’s worries over a reliable supply chain are often about availability and consistency. We are but consumers relying on others—producers—to meet our consumer needs. We expect producers to stock those shelves, whoever they are. It’s when the shelves are bare that we start to wonder, where does it all come from anyway? We think more about those bumper stickers asking us to know our farmer to know our food. But this is the exception, because the shelves are often fairly stocked. People benefit from and are beholden to a grocery infrastructure a century in the making.[1]

That infrastructure didn’t exist in the west in the nineteenth century. The worries over supplies then were not so much about consistency. Western customers had less expectation about what would always be on the shelves, what would always be in stock. They were more about worried over whether those supplies were what the grocer said they were.

It was the era of adulteration. Before the homemaker or housekeeper could buy supplies to cook the meals, she (often a she) had to trust that the grocer was selling her the real deal (I wrote a whole book about this, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food, 2019/2022).

The era of adulteration was a period in western history when customers fretted over the honesty of their food’s identity. Adulterated meant contaminated, corrupted, or otherwise misrepresented food. Was that sugar cut with sand, was that milk watered down, was that butter really butter or some factory upstart called margarine — things like that. One way to get a sense of the prominence of the worries is that the reigning economic paradigm at the time was caveat emptor—buyer beware. Most North Americans had not yet established a regulatory infrastructure based on the premise that your food shouldn’t make you sick.

Distrusting the grocer, from “The Use of Adulteration,” Punch (August 4, 1855). Image in the Public Domain.

Granted, adulteration has always been with us, from biblical times to today: we always worry if our food is what the seller tells us it is. But the so-named ‘era of adulteration’ came about in large part because of a relatively quick transition in western supply chains across the second half of the nineteenth century. It came about because customs—the root word inside customer—were disrupted. The age-old ways people had come to trust food from the market were thrown into disarray.

Grocers in the west stood at the balance between customer and supplier, managing a store counter that had quite a lot of power. That might seem odd, since our grocery stores today don’t seem to have actual grocers. But that’s because most of us are comfortable with our self-service grocery stores, so much so that the term “self-service” rarely factors into the description. Before innovations at the Piggly Wiggly and A&P early in the twentieth century, grocery stores were grocers’ markets, and goods were delivered across a counter by the grocer himself.[2] The storekeeper stocked wares behind him and out of reach of the rabble so that groceries came to customers like prescription drugs from a drugstore counter. “Know your grocer know your food” may have been a carriage bumper sticker, for all I know.

The grocer at work, from the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co., c. 1870–1900. Chromolithographed trade card. Printed by R. Ganton, Litho, London. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

The word itself, grocer, descended from storekeepers in the Middle Ages who sold products in gross. For centuries, they were known as Spicers or Pepperers before their dealings in gross weights brought them the name Grosser (in the nineteenth century, French grocers were still called épicers, or spicers) The English spelling evolved by the time grocers were part of a food system that included not just the general or dry goods stores of rural livelihood, but public markets, butcheries, bakeries, and other specialty shops of the urban streets. The public market was, as the name would suggest, a public space. Grocers’ markets more often operated as private shops subject to their own self-decided operations. As rancor grew over customers’ fear they were being swindled, grocers professionalized to develop standards of practice and décor. They published manuals. They printed trade papers. They held conferences. One of their biggest challenges was to garner the faith of their customers. One reason their customers didn’t trust them was that oft-leveled accusation of adulteration.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, whatever success they had in those efforts was eclipsed anyway with the new self-service markets. A century later, we take it for granted so much that our worries are whether the supply truck will deliver the goods from across the country or across the ocean every single day or not. Today’s equivalent worries over food identity may concern the source, the process, and the supplier, but, in a hyper-consumer capitalist culture, until there’s a global pandemic or a boat stuck in a canal, they are less about availability.

I admit I think of this history every time I go to the supermarket; every time I go to the farmer’s market; every time I remember Mr. Hooper or the grocer down the block from my childhood, Mr. Gordon, a last vestige, even then, of the neighborhood grocer. It isn’t nostalgia to appreciate the grocer — it’s historical indebtedness. A word for the grocer is a word of appreciation for an often-invisible agent in the middle of supply and demand.

 

[1] Given the problems of supermarket redlining (and the related food apartheid) and prevalence of food insecurity, I’m nodding here to an idealized gentrified western model, to be sure, and one that isn’t ideal in the same way to everyone.

[2] Susan Spellman’s (2016) Cornering the Market is a good source for more grocer history. Shane Hamilton’s (2018) Supermarket USA gives it a good scope of international relations.

Danny Bowien’s Post-Authentic Asian America

By Leland Tabares

In a recent interview, James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Danny Bowien admits that if he were to create authentic diasporic Asian food, he would be making “Hamburger Helper” and “buttery canned vegetables.”

A Korean adoptee of a white middle-class family who grew up in Oklahoma, Bowien shows the relationship between food and diasporic identity to be messy when it comes to authenticity. For instance, he never tasted Korean food until he left Oklahoma for San Francisco at the age of nineteen and never formally trained to cook Chinese food prior to opening his now famous Mission Chinese Food restaurant. Discourses on authenticity do not readily account for ethnic narratives like Bowien’s. Indeed, he considers himself “the least authentic chef.” Influenced by his unique background, Bowien sees the current culinary world as what he calls “post-authentic,” defined more by “credibility” than “heritage.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic becomes legible through a recent collaboration with the Arizona Beverage Company. The New York-based company, known for their AriZona Iced Tea line and intentionally gaudy 1990s aesthetic, partnered with Bowien to create a special one-time menu using AriZona beverages as the primary ingredients. This brand deal was organized in 2019 as a pop-up event held at the Brooklyn outfit of Mission Chinese Food.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

The “Great Buy” menu—a reference to AriZona’s “Great Buy! 99 Cents” tagline—featured two entrées, a dessert, and a cocktail. They included, respectively: Mucho Mango Fried Rice, Smoked Green Tea Chicken Noodles, Grapeade Ambrosia, and Green Tea Ginsenger. The 99-cent price point for the dessert paid homage to the tall 99-cent AriZona Iced Tea cans popularized in the 1990s and early-2000s.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

To many in the culinary establishment, the notion that a chef would monetize his menu is antithetical to the profession’s values around creative freedom. Celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, Michael Symon, and Marco Pierre White have partnered with brands like Coke, Lay’s, and Knorr. But none had brought a sponsored product into their restaurants. Famed food writer Pete Wells of The New York Times equated the event to Bowien selling a brand “access to [diners’] heads.” Bobby Flay publicly condemned Bowien, saying that he would “never take a product and force it into [his] menu” because such an act desecrates the “sacred” nature of a chef’s menu.[i] The backlash to Bowien’s collaboration would appear to have damaged his credibility, a devastating irony for a chef who places credibility at the forefront of the post-authentic. But Bowien remains as popular as ever.

What the collaboration makes visible has less to do with Bowien and more to do with the culinary establishment. It reveals how industry norms gatekeep minoritized chefs who prepare nontraditional foods, demonstrating how access to credibility is unequally distributed. As I have written elsewhere, Bowien represents an emerging generation of misfit chefs whose nontraditional approaches to professionalism literally and symbolically mis-fit within the industry. Acts of mis-fitting expose how industry norms render some chefs unfit for professional belonging. Professional norms thus play direct roles in the formation and regulation of culinary authenticity and identity. Bowien realizes as much when, in response to the criticism, he explains, “I believe in breaking the system that says a certain type of cuisine or price point should be frowned on.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic then does not do away with identity, as if identity no longer matters. In fact, he indicates that identity is essential to the post-authentic: “Identity definitely interests me. I feel like today it’s all about identity.” Rather than using terms like inauthentic or nonauthentic, terms that might signal a refusal or avoidance of engaging with authenticity, Bowien employs post-authentic to highlight the important (and often damaging) ways that the restaurant industry’s professional norms—norms that place value in Western Anglo-European food traditions—not only contribute to the production of authenticity but also commodify and exploit minoritized cultures in the process.

By monetizing his menu, Bowien asserts control over the means of commodifying his Asian Americanness. In the fashion world, streetwear culture popularized brand collaborations between industry elites and smaller independent businesses. Bowien draws inspiration from these collaborations because they challenge the ideologies that separate so-called high and low culture. “Look at fashion,” Bowien explains, “how brands are doing collaborations with other brands. There’s this old guard that says you have to be haute couture or you’re not one of us: you have to do your haute couture first, then you can do your street-wear line. I’ve played that game [in the food world] and tried to do what made everyone else happy, but I wasn’t happy.”[ii]

Bowien’s collaboration with AriZona turns the tables back on the culinary establishment to insist that a menu composed of mass-produced commodities and branded content not only emblematizes an authentic contemporary American dining experience, but also illustrates the degree to which culture industries—from fine dining to advertising—produce and regulate notions of authenticity. For Bowien, the post-authentic is a critical accounting of these processes of cultural regulation by capitalist industries. Rather than refuse to participate, Bowien leans in to assert his own agency and individualism amid the system: “I believe that what I’m doing is good. I want to be myself.”[iii]


References:

[i] Qtd. in Wells, Pete. “This Menu Is Brought to You by Arizona Iced Tea,” 7 May 2019.

[ii] Qtd. in Birdsall, John. “Chef Danny Bowien doesn’t care that you have a problem with his Arizona Iced Tea deal,” 10 May 2019.

[iii] Ibid., Birdsall.